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Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey, the 2010 British television series set in 1912 Edwardian England, is now airing on American television.  The scriptwriting, with varying degrees of success or relevance, presents and explains social and cultural attitudes and actions of the times.  This series begins to feeds my thirst for how-things-were (like the 1900 House and Manor House PBS series), but so far falls short in portraying the use of the vast landscapes these houses sat in.  Filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, most of the action takes place indoors or in town, but there are short scenes of fox hunts, tea in the garden and walking in the Capability Brown-designed grounds.  The drama primarily involves the interactions between upstairs and downstairs characters.  Conspicuously absent are servants who worked outside the house, maintaining the gardens and park.  Perhaps the addition of outdoors workers would have expanded the scope of drama from upstairs-downstairs to also include inside-outside.



There was an interesting article about the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in the 11/6/10 New York Times.  The article describes how the death tax impacted the estate, and the Duchess’s notable efforts to make the upkeep of the modern country house estate sustainable. 

Of particular interest is that the Duchess now lives in the former vicarage in Edensor village on the 35,000 acre Chatsworth estate.  Much of the original village was demolished over successive garden renovations to improve the view from Chatsworth house and entry drive.  Around 1840, Joseph  Paxton pulled down the portion of the village east of the park drive and created a model village in its place.  The removal or relocation of settlements to improve a view from the country house was not uncommon.  More anon.

Humphry Repton’s Red Books

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York currently has a fantastic online exhibition of Humphry Repton’s Red Books.  Repton (1752-1818) at age 16 was apprenticed to a textile merchant and later set up a business of his own, but this was not a success.  After the death of his well-to-do parents he retired to a small country estate in 1778.  Repton began to design gardens for his landed neighbors, and by 1788 he set himself up in business again, this time as a landscape gardener.  Bound in red leather, a Red Book was the means by which Repton conveyed his proposal to a landowner for improvements to his estate.  The perceived faults and proposed remedies were written down as well as demonstrated in plan and rendering.  The most interesting renderings showed before and after views by means of a hinged or sliding piece of paper.  The before view was the view you saw first, and the after view was unveiled by flipping or sliding a portion of the drawing to the side.  Invariably the recommendations consisted of planting or removing groups of trees, rerouting the entry drive, constructing an interesting structure in the distant view, and often, refacing the house in a stucco finish.

Petworth Park

I am writing this blog because I have been interested in the English Landscape Garden (1750-1850) for the past 20 years.  My interest was piqued in a seminar in graduate school, and then developed in post-graduate independent research and travel.  This blog is an outlet and motivator for my continued study. 

As an architect working in a predominantly landscape-oriented job, the interaction between landscape and architecture is a daily concern for me.  In fact I have been thinking about it ever since graduate school and the English Landscape Garden is actually a terrific vehicle for exploring the possibilities of that relationship or problem.  So when we talk about the landscape garden we must also consider the country house associated with it.

One of my favorite sites is Petworth (West Sussex).  It’s a favorite for several reasons, the listing of which might help to forecast the nature of this blog.  For starters, the painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) spent time at Petworth in the 1820s and 30s as the guest of the third Earl of Egremont (1751-1837).  Turner had a studio in the Old Library on an upper floor of the house.  Here he painted large scenes of Petworth Park and other Egremont-related sites that are now displayed in the Petworth Carved Room.

 But the work he did at Petworth that grabs me most is the small atmospheric gouaches he made of the interior life at Petworth.  He painted views of interior decorations, furniture and picture arrangements, and groups of people.  The paintings are amazingly detailed yet they are also abstract studies in light, color, form and composition. 

Another reason why Petworth is so great is that the landscape was designed for the most-part by Capability Brown (1716-83), for the second Earl of Egremont (1710-63).  Brown swept away the walled garden at the front of the house, dammed a stream to form the lake, rerouted the entry drive, and enhanced a pleasure garden at the side of the house.  Petworth is a quintessential Brown landscape.

Petworth also has a very fine example of a ha-ha, a landscape device used to invisibly separate the park from the areas near to the house.  At Petworth though the ha-ha is at the side of the house so there is no impediment to having deer graze right up to the front door. 

Petworth also has a stunning art collection, gathered primarily by the second and third Earls, consisting of many paintings (don’t forget the Turners) and classical sculpture.  This is  A Florentine Youth by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72) . 

Also interesting is the servants’ quarters at Petworth.  They have been lovingly restored and show what it takes to support life in a large country house.

These are the kinds of topics that attract me to the English Landscape Garden and will be developed in coming posts.

What I have been reading recently

Balmori, Diana, “Architecture, Landscape, and the Intermediate Structure:  Eighteenth-Century Experiments in Mediation,” JSAH, L: 1, March 1991, pp. 38-56.

Huxley, Anthony, An Illustrated History of Gardening, New York, The Lyons Press, 1998.

Rowell, Christopher, Warrell, Ian, and Brown, David Blayney, Turner at Petworth, The National Trust and Tate, 2002.

Williamsom, Tom, Polite Landscapes:  Gardens and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, Baltimore, MD, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Wilson, Richard, and Mackley, Alan, Creating Paradise:  The Building of the English Country House 1660-1880, London and New York, Hambledon and London, 2000.